R Balki’s 2009 film Paa, starring Amitabh Bachchan in the titular role of a school student battling progeria, released on this day, 4 December, 10 years ago. In order to celebrate the milestone, Firstpost caught up with the filmmaker for a quick chat as part of our column This Day That Year. Excerpts from the interaction below.
Can you recall how the idea behind Paa germinated?
One day, I had gone to Amit ji’s office to discuss some promotion for Cheeni Kum (their maiden collaboration and his directorial debut). That day, I met Abhishek (Bachchan) too. He and Amit ji were talking, and I was merely observing. Abhishek was saying some wise things whereas Amit ji was laughing and cracking up. So I thought Abhishek is sounding like his father and Amit ji is sounding like Abhishek’s son. So I thought I could find a way to make a film with both of them, where I could swap the roles of son and father. I thought it’d be a fantasy film till I researched and found this condition called progeria (where a child ages with multiplier effect). There were some videos I saw of progeria patients. I even went to the Progeria Foundation for accurate research.
How did you gain the support of the entire Bachhan family, from Amitabh in an extremely challenging role to Abhishek playing his father, to them backing the film with their production banner AB Corp, to Jaya Bachchan doing the opening credits of Paa?
It took some time to convince Abhishek because he was really petrified of playing his dad’s dad. Amit ji thought it’s a special film so they should produce it. But it took me not even one minute to convince him to play Auro. He was sure about the film right from the start. He was initially a little apprehensive of how we’ll pull off his look. But then we showed him the look test. The trick was to shoot in a wide angle if you have a big head. The whole figure then looks smaller. Everybody was involved in the project so I thought why not ask Jaya ji to do the opening credits. I bounced the idea with her, and she was keen. It was very cute shooting with her.
Vidya Balan was your first and final choice to play Auro’s mother. Did you never consider approaching someone else, like say Tabu, with whom you worked with in Cheeni Kum?
I never thought of Tabu for this particular role because she just played the romantic lead opposite Amit ji. I always thought Vidya was the most suitable for this part because she had both the softness of a mother and the aggression and resistance of a single mother. She’s a dream to work with, from Paa to Mission Mangal (in which he was the co-producer, co-writer and Creative Director). She was initially apprehensive of playing Amit ji’s mother. But when she saw his look test, she told me it’s not him, it’s Auro. And she felt almost like a mother to him from then.
What I really appreciated was Auro was not bullied at school. In fact, he was the star of the class. Were you conscious of not going the Taare Zameen Par way while making a film on a child with a genetic disease?
I think children are a lot more sensible, far more than adults. It’s cruel to show that children don’t understand these conditions. Auro is someone whose presence is known by everyone in school. But they have to hide it from anyone outside the school because it will then become an unnecessary phenomenon. Also, they know he’s a witty boy, and he has got only a few years to live. They’re not treating him with too much sympathy. They don’t consider his condition as an ailment. While writing, I was very clear this is the tone I have to take.
As much as 10 percent of the budget of the film (Rs 15 crore) went into the prosthetic. How did you crack the look of Auro, and managed to achieve it?
We did a lot of research, and found Domini Till and Christian Tinsley (Hollywood prosthetic experts). Amit ji was in London so he did the test there. After that, Domini has done a lot of films with Amit ji. In fact, she also did the make-up for him in Shamitabh. For the design of the look, we looked at actual progeria patients. Amit ji needed a slightly bigger head because of the lensing. We managed to make him look as small as possible. There couldn’t be a lot of expressions on the face because of the prosthetic. So he made his role endearing through his eyes, voice, and body language. He just dropped his shoulders. He wanted to sound like a half-grownup child. For the heaviest voice in the country to become the squeakiest voice was tough. But he did a beautiful job.
Paa also touched upon, through Vidya and Abhishek’s relationship, the dilemma between family and career.
It wasn’t really about career vs family. At that point of time, it was as simple as you want the kid or not. That’s all it was. It was nobody’s mistake. He didn’t even know she had the child.
What really worked in Paa was the music by Illayaraja. At a time when getting AR Rahman to compose the music of your film would be considered a dream, you went a step ahead and roped in his mentor Illayaraja for Cheeni Kum, and then Paa. Why was that important for you?
I think he’s the best music composer this country has ever seen. He never worked too much in Bombay. He did Sadma and a few other projects. He was too busy with his South projects. But music is universal. He really loved both Cheeni Kum and Paa. To get him to do the background score of your film is a dream.
Arundhati Nag was as endearing a presence in Paa as Zohra Sehgal was in Cheeni Kum. How did you think of casting her as Vidya’s mother?
It was strange. We first approached Supriya Pathak for the role. But she had a fracture 20 days before the shoot. I had seen Arundhati in some Kannada film. So we did a video test with her to see how she looked. And then I finalised her, saying this was the face I wanted.
Amitabh has maintained whenever he works with you, you give him the weirdest roles of his career. What makes your creative partnership so enduring?
I did Cheeni Kum, Paa, and Shamitabh with him. Then he had a very important scene in both Ki & Ka and Padman. I don’t think he has a choice. I enjoy writing for him. I’m glad he likes working with me too. I’m such a Bachchan fan that I’d like to see him do something different. Mostly, it works. Sometimes, it doesn’t but I’ll keep trying. I imagined him in Cheeni Kum very easily. He’s very sarcastic and poker-faced. And he’s not an old man. He’s Bachchan. So that combination of young and old really worked for me. I couldn’t have done Cheeni Kum with any other actor. Or for that matter, even Paa.
All images from Twitter.